/Opinion | ‘If I Sleep for an Hour, 30 People Will Die’

Opinion | ‘If I Sleep for an Hour, 30 People Will Die’

Historians estimate that France’s Jewish resistance networks together saved 7,000 to 10,000 children. Some 11,400 children were deported and killed.

Image
Adolfo Kaminsky in a darkroom in 2014. As a teenager in World War II, he forged passports for French Jews.CreditRaphael Zubler

After the war, Mr. Kaminsky didn’t plan to keep working as a forger. But through his wartime networks, other movements got in touch. He continued forging papers for 30 more years, playing a small role in conflicts ranging from the Algerian war of independence to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa to the Vietnam War, making documents for American draft dodgers. He estimates that in 1967 alone, he supplied forged papers to people in 15 countries.

I can’t vouch for every cause. Some of the rebel groups he supported used violence. And at close range, his stubborn idealism was no doubt maddening. He had two kids soon after World War II, but couldn’t tell them or his ex-wife about his underground work, so they didn’t know why he rarely visited. Girlfriends assumed he was absent because he’d been cheating. He was supposed to follow one woman to America, but never showed up, because he’d joined the Algerian resistance.

“I saved lives because I can’t deal with unnecessary deaths — I just can’t,” he told me. “All humans are equal, whatever their origins, their beliefs, their skin color,” he later added. “There are no superiors, no inferiors. That is not acceptable for me.”

In 1971, convinced that too many different groups knew his identity, and that he’d soon be caught and imprisoned, Mr. Kaminsky quit forging for good, and mostly made a living teaching photography. On a visit to Algiers he met a young law student, of Tuareg ancestry, who was the daughter of a liberal Algerian imam. They’re still married, and have three children.

The last time I saw Mr. Kaminsky, he showed me a photograph he took just after the liberation of Paris. It shows about 30 children who’d come out of hiding, and were hoping to be reunited with their parents.

He knows there are children in similar peril today, and that having the wrong passport can still cost your life. “I did all I could when I could. Now, I can’t do anything,” he said. Surely, though, the rest of us can.